2020 NFL Preview: With Eli Manning gone, Joe Judge and Daniel Jones are the Giants' new hope

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on August 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

You’d figure a team that has whiffed badly on its past two head-coaching hires and lost 13, 11 and 12 games the past three seasons would not make a risky hire for its next head coach.

The New York Giants made the riskiest hire of the offseason.

Joe Judge might end up being a great NFL head coach. Thus far, it’s impossible to tell based on his resume. He has mostly been a special teams coach in the NFL (a path that worked out fine for John Harbaugh). The Giants had to rush to hire him before he accepted a deal at Mississippi State, a program whose only conference championship came in 1941. The history of Bill Belichick assistants in head coaching roles is spotty, to say the least. The NFL’s lack of Black head coaches came under immense scrutiny this offseason, and Judge’s resume makes you wonder why he was allowed to skip the line while others can’t get a shot.

But the Giants believe. Judge was a virtual unknown to the Giants two weeks before they hired him, but he swept them off their feet.

“I understand we've lost some credibility because the last two hires haven't worked out,” co-owner and team president John Mara said at Judge’s introductory news conference via NorthJersey.com, “but I think [Judge] is unique.”

The Giants just hope Judge is more Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin, less Ben McAdoo or Pat Shurmur. Judge spent his first few months strangely not calling any players by name publicly — one of the fatal flaws of Belichick assistants is copying his worst traits that have nothing to do with winning football games — but nobody will care if he turns the Giants around.

“I’m not trying to be a [jerk] with the way I answer certain questions,’’ Judge said, according to the New York Post. “I want you to understand I’m always doing everything I can to protect the team.”

In a way, quarterback Daniel Jones gets to start his career now too. The Giants finally stopped giving Eli Manning virtual “I’m sorry” gifts for his one-game benching by McAdoo in 2017 and moved forward with the future. Manning retired and acknowledged the awkward 2019 season didn’t help Jones.

“I think it’ll be easier this year for him to step up as that leader,” Manning said on SiriusXM’s NFL Radio, via Newsday.  “Last year it was probably awkward for him, me being there and me being in meeting rooms, kind of the whole dynamic. Me being gone, he is the quarterback and he is the guy.”

Considering the difficult situation, Jones fared well. He was awesome in the preseason. He was fantastic in games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, New York Jets and Washington Redskins, throwing for a combined 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. He struggled in other games but was a rookie on a bad team. Overall, it was promising.

“I will tell you this, it felt good that every person we interviewed loves the quarterback,” Mara said at Judge’s introductory news conference. “They all said that to us.”

It will still take a while. Saquon Barkley is a great talent, but so far is wasting his prime on a bad team. The offense has made some improvements. The defense needs to get a lot better, but the Giants tried to fill some spots in free agency. The Giants are 0-1 in the playoffs since 2011 and have rarely been competitive since beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Getting a proud franchise back to respectability starts with Jones and Judge.

Judge worked with the Patriots’ special teams from 2012-19, adding receivers coach to his duties last season. It’s a big jump up for him, being the top guy in an intense market. One way or another, his name will be uttered often by Giants fans.

Joe Judge, 38 years old, turned down Mississippi State to become Giants head coach. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

The Giants overpaid for cornerback James Bradberry (three years, $43.5 million) and inside linebacker Blake Martinez (three years, $30.8 million). Bradberry plays a valuable position but isn’t great, and Martinez is not a playmaker at a devalued position. Still, the Giants needed to improve their defensive talent and they’ll help. The draft will lift the offensive line, starting with Georgia tackle Andrew Thomas. Mostly it was a bland offseason for the Giants, but at least they didn’t spend it loading up on ex-Patriots like most former Belichick assistants do.

GRADE: C+

Daniel Jones wasn’t consistent as a rookie, but that’s to be expected. Seeing him play very well in a handful of games is more important. It shows his ceiling. Now he has to smooth out the rough edges in his game, like fumbling too much and accuracy issues on short and intermediate routes. Jones was an unpopular draft pick but quickly won over Giants fans. He has plenty of physical tools and adds value as a runner too. He has a decent team around him, and will be helped out if Saquon Barkley stays healthy and rookie tackle Andrew Thomas plays well right away. This will be an important season in determining exactly how good Jones can be in the NFL.

The answer here is Saquon Barkley, who missed time with a high ankle sprain last season but showed in December why he’s an elite NFL running back. But for something different, let’s go with new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The oft-criticized former Dallas Cowboys coach probably feels a relief to be out of the spotlight a bit. We forget that head coaches usually get their jobs for being fine play-callers. According to Giants.com Garrett called plays for six Cowboys teams as an offensive coordinator or head coach and they finished third, 13th, second, seventh, 11th and sixth in total offense (during his fourth season he transitioned to interim head coach). With Garrett calling plays Dallas finished no lower than ninth in passing yards and lower than seventh in passing touchdowns only once.

Garrett became an easy target because he couldn’t get the Cowboys to an NFC championship game, but it’s not like he doesn’t understand offensive football. He could be a great fit for Daniel Jones and the Giants.

The over/under for Giants wins at BetMGM is 6.5, and that seems like a fair line. For a better wager let’s look to player props and Daniel Jones. The over/under for Jones’ passing touchdowns this season is 26.5 and that seems high. He threw 24 TDs in 12 starts last season, but it’s hard to depend on 15 in four games again. Only eight quarterbacks reached 27 touchdowns last season, and only five had more than that. Expecting 27 or more touchdowns seems too aggressive for Jones this season. If he hits that mark, the Giants will be thrilled.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The Giants have five capable pass-catchers, including Saquon Barkley, and that kind of crowding makes the fantasy navigation difficult. And when you look at the downfield guys, keep in mind the primary four options — Golden Tate, Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram — all missed time last year. Not much feels fantasy-obvious in the Meadowlands. 

“Alas, the least-appealing option is Engram, the fourth-year tight end. He’s been plagued by injury through three years [14 games missed], and he’s scored only 12 touchdowns in 34 games. With a Yahoo ADP inside the Top 90, Engram gets drafted as an every-week starter. I’d rather pay up for a presumed sure thing at tight end, or take my chances with the penny stocks later in the draft. Engram is saddled with a good-not-great upside and a non-existent floor.” 

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today] 

According to SharpFootballStats.com, which uses sportsbooks’ win totals to determine future strength of schedule, the Giants have the second-hardest schedule in the NFL this season. The Giants will probably be underdogs in their first five games: vs. Pittsburgh, at Chicago, vs. San Francisco, at L.A. Rams, at Dallas. That’s not an ideal situation for a first-time head coach.

Can Dave Gettleman survive another losing season?

The Giants are 9-23 since Gettleman took over as general manager, and there have been plenty of questionable decisions. The Daniel Jones pick, controversial in the moment, might turn out to be his masterpiece. Other than that, not a lot has worked out. For one bad example, trading up to draft cornerback DeAndre Baker in the first round last year looked bad when Baker struggled as a rookie and much worse when he was charged with armed robbery this offseason. Trading for defensive lineman Leonard Williams in a contract year and then overpaying to keep him on the franchise tag a few months later was questionable too.

Gettleman survived after last season when Pat Shurmur didn’t. Another bad season wouldn’t help his case. If Jones plummets in his second year, there won’t be a lot on Gettleman’s ledger with the Giants to indicate he deserves a fourth season.

Perhaps the Giants could take a big jump. Daniel Jones having a full offseason as the starter, not worried about the Giants giving ceremonial starts to Eli Manning to make up for a decision Ben McAdoo made years ago, helps. Jones has good talent around him and an improved line. The defense will probably be bad, but it can’t get too much worse than last year. It’s hard to envision a playoff berth no matter what, but a .500 season would be reason to believe the Giants made the right hire in Joe Judge.

The Giants averaged five wins from 2017-19 and now have a new, unproven coach taking over during a weird offseason. Daniel Jones played very well in his best games, but in the other eight starts he had nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The Giants might be bad, and it’s not hard to see them having serious questions about Joe Judge and Jones by the end of the season. Even another losing season is fine if New York feels it made progress with Judge and Jones plays well. If Jones struggles and Judge looks like he’s in over his head, then what?

The Giants aren’t as bad as the worst few teams in the NFL — they’re unlikely to finish in last place thanks to the Washington Redskins — but we shouldn’t expect too much either. The defense is a work in progress, and we’ll see if Daniel Jones can eliminate the bad plays and games that kept his rookie season from being a complete success. New York shouldn’t be 4-12 again, like last season, but would being in the six-win range make Giants fans happy?

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Redskins
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29.
Carolina Panthers
27.
Detroit Lions
26.
New York Jets
25.
Atlanta Falcons
24.
Miami Dolphins
23. 
Las Vegas Raiders
22. 
Los Angeles Chargers